When I first began working as an adjunct English instructor, a very wise colleague gave me this advice. He said, “don’t design a lesson because the technology allows you to do it. Design a lesson because it helps you to accomplish your objectives. Then see how the technology can help.”
Unfortunately, we seem to have entered a new age where the technology is the lesson. Rod Sims’ article, “Beyond Instructional Design: Making Learning Design a Reality,” published in the Journal of Learning Design appears to bemoan that fact, placing Sims alongside many of today’s best educators.
Sims defines “beyond design” as putting technological innovations in the background so we can foreground the learning. And he outlines a new dynamic in which teachers and learners, outside the realm of face to face communication and the power structures embedded therein, are able to redefine their roles so that students create the course content through the course design.
He is thus firmly embedded in the Paulo Freire model, which has been embraced by educators for at least the last 30 years. The model argues that students are not little banks to be filled with knowledge deposits, but that they have skill and intelligence and experience that can be leveraged during the learning process.
I agree that students need to take an active role in their learning. And I believe that teachers have a responsibility to engage their students so as to understand what students need and enable them to perform the skills that are the outcome of the course.
However, the very reason that students seek learning opportunities – that students are students – is because they come to a course without prior knowledge or skill, and they need instruction and practice, feedback and guidance to complete the tasks and achieve the objectives.
Sims contends that “knowledge is constructed by the individual” and that “computers should preferably be used for course participants to deconstruct, construct or reconstruct their mental models.” I believe that knowledge is interpreted by the individual, and that it can be interpreted rightly or wrongly. For example, there are a number of different ways to understand how the term hybris applies to Oedipus and thus to interpret the implications of a tragic flaw. But to say that Oedipus’ hybris made him joyfully acceptant of the plague on his city is an incorrect interpretation of Sophocles’ play.
Students will necessarily break down a bit of knowledge or a skill set into its component parts so that they can rebuild it. That is, after all, how exercise strengthens us. But the rebuilding must be done with proper nutrition, in this case, the guidance of a skilled instructor, someone who can guide students to a correct understanding of terms, and a judicious application of tools.
Sims argues that course design should be sufficiently flexible so that every student – no matter what learning style, culture, or gender – can personalize the course without designer assumptions or interference. I wholeheartedly agree. But this caveat applies to all education, not only to digital learning. Interactive, learner-centered, action-oriented objectives are the basis of good teaching, no matter the mode of delivery.
Finally, Sims claims that “too often content is considered the primary focus and used to define the structure of the course.” I believe this statement is at the heart of the contemporary educational debacle. There was a time when knowledge transfer was the teacher’s role. Students needed a resource to show them the capitals of the world, the periodic table, the biographies of the great poets. That time has passed. Information can be had at the touch of a button. The role of a teacher is not to transfer knowledge, but to apply knowledge into a skill set.
I therefore cannot agree with Sims’ contention that the “success of online environments” relies on a shift “from teacher prescribed to learner generated” content, although I do recognize that “the design of the interface” needs to become “an integrated narrative.” Perhaps if Sims could have offered some concrete examples of learners being the “pro-active providers of content” I might better be able to see his point.
In summary, Sims provides a number of mandates for what he sees as the new teaching and learning environment. In so far as these are based on sound pedagogical practices, they are well worth repeating. But when they point to some mystical future where students create courses independent of instructors, I remain skeptical.
Michelle Baker holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the Catholic University of America. She is the founder of Corporate Writing Pro, a training company where the writer is celebrated and nurtured. She specializes in helping government biologists write more clearly. When you’re ready to give members of your organization the gifts of clarity, insight, and focus into their writing process, check out her course catalog and send her an email.